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Review of Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasting” – Article by Adam Alonzi

Review of Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasting” – Article by Adam Alonzi

The New Renaissance Hat
Adam Alonzi
Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo, Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. 1789, Oil on Canvas.

“All who drink of this treatment recover in a short time, except those whom it does not help, who all die. It is obvious, therefore, that it fails only in incurable cases.”


Before the advent of evidence-based medicine, most physicians took an attitude like Galen’s toward their prescriptions. If their remedies did not work, surely the fault was with their patient. For centuries scores of revered doctors did not consider putting bloodletting or trepanation to the test. Randomized trials to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment were not common practice. Doctors like Archie Cochrane, who fought to make them part of standard protocol, were met with fierce resistance. Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015), contends that the state of forecasting in the 21st century is strikingly similar to medicine in the 19th. Initiatives like the Good Judgement Project (GJP), a website that allows anyone to make predictions about world events, have shown that even a discipline that is largely at the mercy of chance can be put on a scientific footing.

More than once the author reminds us that the key to success in this endeavor is not what you think or what you know, but how you think. For Tetlock pundits like Thomas Friedman are the “exasperatingly evasive” Galens of the modern era. In the footnotes he lets the reader know he chose Friedman as target strictly because of his prominence. There are many like him. Tetlock’s academic work comparing random selections with those of professionals led media outlets to publish, and a portion of their readers to conclude, that expert opinion is no more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. What the undiscerning did not consider, however, is not all of the experts who participated failed to do better than chance.

Daniel Kahneman hypothesized that “attentive readers of the New York Times…may be only slightly worse” than these experts corporations and governments so handsomely recompense. This turned out to be a conservative guess. The participants in the Good Judgement Project outperformed all control groups, including one composed of professional intelligence analysts with access to classified information. This hodgepodge of retired bird watchers, unemployed programmers, and news junkies did 30% better than the “pros.” More importantly, at least to readers who want to gain a useful skillset as well as general knowledge, the managers of the GJP have identified qualities and ways of thinking that separate “superforecasters” from the rest of us. Fortunately they are qualities we can all cultivate.

While the merits of his macroeconomic theories can be debated, John Maynard Keynes was an extremely successful investor during one of the bleakest periods in international finance. This was no doubt due in part to his willingness to make allowance for new information and his grasp of probability. Participants in the GJP display open-mindedness, an ability and willingness to repeatedly update their forecasts, a talent to neither under- nor over-react to new information by putting it into a broader context,  and a predilection for mathematical thinking (though those interviewed admitted they rarely used an explicit equation to calculate their answer). The figures they give also tend to be more precise than their less successful peers. This “granularity” may seem ridiculous at first. I must confess that when I first saw estimates on the GJP of 34% or 59%, I would chuckle a bit. How, I asked myself, is a single percentage point meaningful? Aren’t we just dealing with rough approximations? Apparently not.

Tetlock reminds us that the GJP does not deal with nebulous questions like “Who will be president in 2027?” or “Will a level 9 earthquake hit California two years from now?” However, there are questions that are not, in the absence of unforeseeable Black Swan events, completely inscrutable. Who will win the Mongolian presidency? Will Uruguay sign a trade agreement with Laos in the next six months? These are parts of highly complex systems, but they can be broken down into tractable subproblems.

Using numbers instead of words like “possibly”, “probably”, “unlikely”, etc., seems unnatural. It gives us wiggle room and plausible deniability. They also cannot be put on any sort of record to keep score of how well we’re doing. Still, to some it may seem silly, pedantic, or presumptuous. If Joint Chiefs of Staff had given the exact figure they had in mind (3 to 1) instead of the “fair chance” given to Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs debacle may have never transpired. Because they represent ranges of values instead of single numbers, words can be retroactively stretched or shrunk to make blunders seem a little less avoidable. This is good for advisors looking to cover their hides by hedging their bets, but not so great for everyone else.

If American intelligence agencies had presented the formidable but vincible figure of 70% instead of a “slam dunk” to Congress, a disastrous invasion and costly occupation would have been prevented. At this point it is hard not to see the invasion as anything as a mistake, but even amidst these emotions we must be wary of hindsight. Still, a 70% chance of being right means there is a 30% chance of being wrong. It is hardly a “slam dunk.” No one would feel completely if an oncologist told them they are 70% sure the growth is not malignant. There are enormous consequences to sloppy communications. However, those with vested interests are more than content with this approach if it agrees with them, even if it ends up harming them.

When Nate Silver put the odds of the 2008 election in Obama’s favor, he was panned by Republicans as a pawn of the liberal media. He was quickly reviled by Democrats when he foresaw a Republican takeover of the Senate. It is hard to be a wizard when the king, his court, and all the merry peasants sweeping the stables would not know a confirmation bias from their right foot. To make matters worse, confidence is widely equated with capability. This seems to be doubly true of groups of people, particularly when they are choosing a leader. A mutual-fund manager who tells his clients they will see great returns on a company is viewed as stronger than a Poindexter prattling on about Bayesian inference and risk management.

The GJP’s approach has not spread far — yet. At this time most pundits, consultants, and self-proclaimed sages do not explicitly quantify their success rates, but this does not stop corporations, NGOs, and institutions at all levels of government from paying handsomely for the wisdom of untested soothsayers. Perhaps they have a few diplomas, but most cannot provide compelling evidence for expertise in haruspicy (sans the sheep’s liver). Given the criticality of accurate analyses to saving time and money, it would seem as though a demand for methods to improve and assess the quality of foresight would arise. Yet for the most part individuals and institutions continue to happily grope in the dark, unaware of the necessity for feedback when they misstep — afraid of having their predictions scrutinized or having to take the pains to scrutinize their predictions.

David Ferrucci is wary of the “guru model” to settling disputes. No doubt you’ve witnessed or participated in this kind of whimpering fracas: one person presents a Krugman op-ed to debunk a Niall Ferguson polemic, which is then countered with a Tommy Friedman book, which was recently excoriated  by the newest leader of the latest intellectual cult to come out of the Ivy League. In the end both sides leave frustrated. Krugman’s blunders regarding the economic prospects of the Internet, deflation, the “imminent” collapse of the euro (said repeatedly between 2010 and 2012) are legendary. Similarly, Ferguson, who strongly petitioned the Federal Reserve to reconsider quantitative easing, lest the United States suffer Weimar-like inflation, has not yet been vindicated. He and his colleagues responded in the same way as other embarrassed prophets: be patient, it has not happened, but it will! In his defense, more than one clever person has criticized the way governments calculate their inflation rates…

Paul Ehrlich, a darling of environmentalist movement, has screeched about the detonation of a “population bomb” for decades. Civilization was set to collapse between 15 and 30 years from 1970. During the interim 100 to 200 million would annually starve to death, by the year 2000 no crude oil would be left, the prices of raw materials would skyrocket, and the planet would be in the midst of a perpetual famine. Tetlock does not mention Ehrlich, but he is, particularly given his persisting influence on Greens, as or more deserving of a place in this hall of fame as anyone else. Larry Kudlow continued to assure the American people that the Bush tax breaks were producing massive economic growth. This continued well into 2008, when he repeatedly told journalists that America was not in a recession and the Bush boom was “alive and well.” For his stupendous commitment to his contention in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he was nearly awarded a seat in the Trump cabinet.

This is not to say a mistake should become the journalistic equivalent of a scarlet letter. Kudlow’s slavish adherence to his axioms is not unique. Ehrlich’s blindness to technological advances is not uncommon, even in an era dominated by technology. By failing to set a timeline or give detailed causal accounts, many believe they have predicted every crash since they learned how to say the word. This is likely because they begin each day with the same mantra: “the market will crash.”  Yet through an automatically executed routine of psychological somersaults, they do not see they were right only once and wrong dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times. This kind of person is much more deserving of scorn than a poker player who boasts about his victories, because he is (likely) also aware of how often he loses. At least he’s not fooling himself. The severity of Ehrlich’s misfires is a reminder of what happens when someone looks too far ahead while assuming all things will remain the same. Ceteris paribus exists only in laboratories and textbooks.

Axioms are fates accepted by different people as truth, but the belief in Fate (in the form of retroactive narrative construction) is a nearly ubiquitous stumbling block to clear thinking. We may be far removed from Sophocles, but the unconscious human drive to create sensible narratives is not peculiar to fifth-century B.C. Athens. A questionnaire given to students at Northwestern showed that most believed things had turned out for the best even if they had gotten into their first pick. From an outsider’s perspective this is probably not true. In our cocoons we like to think we are in the right place either through the hand of fate or through our own choices. Atheists are not immune to this Panglossian habit. Our brains are wired for stories, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves seldom come out without distortions. We can gain a better outside view, which allows us to see situations from perspectives other than our own, but only through regular practice with feedback. This is one of the reasons groups are valuable.

Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess the weight of an ox hanging in the market square. The average of their guesses (1,197 lbs) turned out to be remarkably close to its actual weight (1,198 lbs). Scott Page has said “diversity trumps ability.” This is a tad bold, since legions of very different imbeciles will never produce anything of value, but there is undoubtedly a benefit to having a group with more than one point of view. This was tested by the GJP. Teams performed better than lone wolves by a significant margin (23% to be exact). Partially as a result of encouraging one another and building a culture of excellence, and partially from the power of collective intelligence.

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

-Helmuth von Moltke

“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

-Mike Tyson

When Archie Cochrane was told he had cancer by his surgeon, he prepared for death. Type 1 thinking grabbed hold of him and did not doubt the diagnosis. A pathologist later told him the surgeon was wrong. The best of us, under pressure, fall back on habitual modes of thinking. This is another reason why groups are useful (assuming all their members do not also panic). Organizations like the GJP and the Millennium Project are showing how well collective intelligence systems can perform. Helmuth von Moltke and Mike Tyson aside, a better motto, substantiated by a growing body of evidence, comes from Dwight  Eisenhower: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director for BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.

Fact-Checking Paul Krugman’s Claim To Be “Right About Everything” – Article by Andrew Syrios

Fact-Checking Paul Krugman’s Claim To Be “Right About Everything” – Article by Andrew Syrios

The New Renaissance Hat
Andrew Syrios
June 10, 2015

But can the debate really be as one-sided as I portray it? Well, look at the results: again and again, people on the opposite side prove to have used bad logic, bad data, the wrong historical analogies, or all of the above. I’m Krugtron the Invincible!

Thus wrote the great Paul Krugman. A man so modest as to proclaim that “I think I can say without false modesty, a huge win; I (and those of like mind) have been right about everything.”

Quite a claim. Indeed, predictions are extraordinarily difficult. Even to an expert in a subject who has dedicated his life to a field of study, predicting the future proves elusive. Daniel Kahneman referenced a study of 284 political and economic “experts” and their predictions and found that “The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of three potential outcomes.”

A whole book of such wildly inaccurate predictions by experts was compiled into the very humorous The Experts Speak with such prescient predictions as Dr. Alfred Velpeau’s “The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it” and Arthur Reynolds belief that “This crash [of 1929] is not going to have much effect on business.” Indeed, a foundational block of Austrian economics (that some Austrians unfortunately forgot regarding premature predictions of hyperinflation) is that the sheer number of variables in the world at large makes accurate forecasting extraordinarily difficult.

So it must be a rare man indeed that can be right about everything. And this man, Paul Krugman is not.

Predicting a Bubble He Recommended

Paul Krugman likes to reference the fact that he predicted the housing bubble. Of course, he also sort of recommended it. From a 2002 column of his,

To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

In 2009, when this came out, he denied its obvious implication and wrote, “It wasn’t a piece of policy advocacy, it was just economic analysis. What I said was that the only way the Fed could get traction would be if it could inflate a housing bubble. And that’s just what happened.” So that doesn’t count as a recommendation? It certainly sounded like he was agreeing with Paul McCulley on inflating a housing bubble. And he verified that that’s exactly what he meant in a 2006 interview where he said,

As Paul McCulley of PIMCO remarked when the tech boom crashed, Greenspan needed to create a housing bubble to replace the technology bubble. So within limits he may have done the right thing. But by late 2004 he should have seen the danger signs and warned against what was happening; such a warning could have taken the place of rising interest rates. He didn’t, and he left a terrible mess for Ben Bernanke.

The best Krugman can possibly say is that he thought Greenspan went too far with the housing bubble he recommended.

Deflation is Around the Corner

While running victory laps because the United States hasn’t seen massive price inflation, Krugman seems to have forgotten what his prediction actually was. In 2010 he wrote, “And what these measures show is an ongoing process of disinflation that could, in not too long, turn into outright deflation … Japan, here we come.”

Robert Murphy called him on this and noted Krugman’s response,

… Krugman himself … said of his 2010 analysis: “(In that post, I worried about deflation, which hasn’t happened; I’ve written a lot since about why).”

Note the parenthetical aside, and the timing: Krugman in April 2013 is mentioning in parentheses to his reader that oh yes, as of February 2010 he was “worried about deflation, which hasn’t happened.” In other words, Krugman entered this crisis with a model that predicted how prices would move in response to the economic situation, and chose his policies of government stimulus accordingly. He was wrong, and yet maintains the same policy recommendations.

But of course to Krugman, anyone who predicted price inflation can’t explain why that hasn’t happened. Such people are just those “… who take a position and refuse to alter that position no matter how strongly the evidence refutes it.” Krugman is different.

Europe Will Do Better Than the United States

In 2008, Krugman wrote:

… tales of a moribund Europe are greatly exaggerated. … The fact is that Europe’s economy looks a lot better now — both in absolute terms and compared with our economy.”

Later he noted that “Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans” and that “he has seen the future and it works.” (I should probably note that that is a quote he borrowed from Lincoln Steffens about the Soviet Union.)

Then Greece went bankrupt and the international consensus is unquestionably that the crisis hit Europe harder.

The Euro Will Collapse

Niall Ferguson counted eleven different times between April of 2010 and July 2012 that Krugman wrote about the imminent breakup of the euro. For example, on May 17th, 2012, Krugman wrote,

Apocalypse Fairly Soon. … Suddenly, it has become easy to see how the euro — that grand, flawed experiment in monetary union without political union — could come apart at the seams. We’re not talking about a distant prospect, either. Things could fall apart with stunning speed, in a matter of months, not years. And the costs — both economic and, arguably even more important, political — could be huge.

Most of these predictions are laced with weasel words such as “might,” “probably,” and “could” (more on that shortly). Still, while I’m no fan of the euro, and it might still collapse, as of today, three years later, it has not. If the word “imminent” means anything at all, Krugman was wrong.

The Sequester Will Doom Us All

Paul Krugman at least admitted the sequester was “relatively small potatoes.” But for “relatively small potatoes” he makes a big deal about it, referring to it as “one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history.” And it “will probably cost ‘only’ around 700,000 jobs.” (Note the word “probably” again.)

Then later, he decided that these were actually quite large potatoes, stating,

And, somehow, both sides decided that the way to buy time was to create a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation through spending cuts unless a grand bargain was reached. Sure enough, there is no bargain, and the doomsday machine will go off at the end of next week.

The economy has done quite well since then actually. Indeed, how $85.4 billion dollars in “cuts” (from the next year’s budget not the previous year’s spending) could affect anything in a $17 trillion dollar economy is simply beyond me. And of course, it didn’t.

Interest Rates Can’t Go Below Zero

In March of this year, Krugman wrote in regard to some European bonds with negative nominal yields,

We now know that interest rates can, in fact, go negative; those of us who dismissed the possibility by saying that people could simply hold currency were clearly too casual about it.”

But as Robert Murphy points out, “The foundation for the Keynesian case for fiscal stimulus rests on an assumption that interest rates can’t go negative.” Murphy also points out that Krugman should admit he was wrong again because back in 2009, Krugman wrote,

And the reason we’re all turning to fiscal policy is that the standard rule, which is that monetary policy plus automatic stabilizers should do the work of smoothing the business cycle, can’t be applied when we’re hard up against the zero lower bound. [i.e. zero percent interest]

“Inflation Will be Back”

In 1998, Paul Krugman predicted “Inflation will be back.”


“The Rate of Technological Change in Computing Slows”

Same article as the last one, “… the number of jobs for IT specialists will decelerate, then actually turn down.”

Aside from a short dip after the 2001 recession, the answer would be nope again.

Weasel Words and “Accurate Predictions”

Let’s take a look at Paul Krugman’s “accurate prediction” of the financial crisis. On March 2nd, 2007, he predicted the following explanation would be given a year from then for the financial crisis he was sort of predicting,

The great market meltdown of 2007 began exactly a year ago, with a 9 percent fall in the Shanghai market, followed by a 416-point slide in the Dow. But as in the previous global financial crisis, which began with the devaluation of Thailand’s currency in the summer of 1997, it took many months before people realized how far the damage would spread.

So the crisis would begin in China? Almost.

He concluded that column by saying, “I’m not saying that things will actually play out this way. But if we’re going to have a crisis, here’s how.”

That’s a good hedge, just like with the euro. He can say he got the financial crisis right (albeit happening in a different way than he expected), but then say he didn’t get the euro wrong because he added “probably” before any prediction about it.

Normally, there would be nothing wrong with these weasel words. Given the nature of predictions, any prediction that is made should have a qualifier in front of it. It’s simply an admission that you aren’t omniscient. But you can’t eat your cake and have it too. Either Krugman was right about the crisis (sort of) and wrong about the euro (and many other things) or neither should count at all.

Or course, this doesn’t refute Krugman’s theories. But then again, Krugman may want to slow down on his victory laps.

Andrew Syrios is a partner in the real estate investment firm Stewardship Properties. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Business Administration and a Minor in History.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Technology Needs Capital To Produce Economic Growth – Article by Frank Shostak

Technology Needs Capital To Produce Economic Growth – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak
June 8, 2015

In his article “The Big Meh” Paul Krugman complains that despite all the information technology advances the effect so far has been negligible as far as economic growth is concerned.

Krugman writes “That the whole digital era, spanning more than four decades, is looking like a disappointment. New technologies have yielded great headlines but modest economic results. Why? … The answer is that I don’t know — but neither does anyone else.”

Indeed if one looks at the real gross domestic product to the potential real gross domestic product ratio the economy does appear to be hovering below potential with the ratio of 0.977 registered in Q1 this year.

shostak_june 8 300_1

Contrary to Krugman, we suggest that economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard have provided a clear answer to the issue of technology and economic growth.

In Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard says that technology, while important, must always work through the investment of capital in order to generate economic growth.

On this issue, Rothbard quotes Mises who says,

What is lacking in (underdeveloped counties) is not knowledge of Western technological methods (“know how”); that is learned easily enough. The service of imparting knowledge, in person or in book form, can be paid for readily. What is lacking is the supply of saved capital needed to put the advanced methods into effect.

Most modern theories that emphasize the importance of new ideas and new technologies give the impression that these ideas and technologies have a “life of their own.” Many experts hold that because of the limited amounts of capital and labor, without technological progress, the opportunities for growth will eventually run out.

We Need Funding To Implement New Ideas

Ideas, unlike material inputs, are not themselves scarce. Consequently, it is argued, new ideas for more efficient processes and new products can make continuous growth possible.

We suggest that regardless of how many ideas people have, what matters is whether these ideas can be implemented. What always limits the implementation of various new techniques is the availability of funding. While ideas and new techniques can result in a better use of scarce resources, they can however, do very little without the pool of real savings.

So regardless of how clever we are and regardless of various technological ideas, without an adequate pool of funding nothing will emerge. It is through the expansion in the pool of real savings that an increase in the stock of capital goods is possible. And it is the increase in the capital goods per worker that permits economic growth to emerge.

To Get More Funding, We Need Savings

Obviously, new ideas and new technology can be introduced during the production of new capital goods (i.e., new technology) and will be imbedded in the capital goods stock. The crux of the matter however, is that capital goods cannot emerge without a prior increase in the pool of funding or pool of real savings.

Take, for instance, a baker John who produced ten loaves of bread. He consumes two loaves of bread whilst the other two loaves — his real savings — he employs to purchase a new part to improve his oven. With a better oven he can now raise the output of bread to twenty loaves. If he still consumes only two loaves, then with a larger savings (now stands at eighteen loaves) he can enhance further his oven by introducing new parts, which will enable the introduction of new technology. Note that all this is made possible on account of real savings.

We suggest that despite new technologies, a major impediment to economic growth has been the relentless central bank tampering with financial markets.

Since 2008 this tampering was made manifest in the extremely loose monetary policy of the Fed that resulted in the massive monetary expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the lowering of interest rates to almost nil.

These policies have been responsible for a severe erosion of the pool of real savings and thus a weakening of the process of capital formation. This in turn has undermined real economic growth notwithstanding new information technology.

For Krugman and his followers savings is bad news — it is seen as less demand — hence one shouldn’t be surprised that Krugman is puzzled as to why new ideas haven’t manifested in a more robust economic growth. Contrary to Krugman, boosting so-called aggregate demand whilst undermining the capital formation process, and hence the ability to produce goods and services, cannot strengthen economic growth over time. In fact this way of thinking results in the notion that something can be generated out of nothing.

Frank Shostak is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a frequent contributor to His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

The Costs of Hysteria: How Economists are Misleading the Public on Climate-Change Policy – Article by Robert P. Murphy

The Costs of Hysteria: How Economists are Misleading the Public on Climate-Change Policy – Article by Robert P. Murphy

The New Renaissance Hat
Robert P. Murphy
May 5, 2015

Suppose the “scientific consensus” on climate change is right. Let’s also stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the computer projections used by the United Nations and the US government are correct, and that economists are able to translate those data into meaningful projections about costs and benefits to people living in the future with climate change.

Despite what the public has been led to believe, the situation is not a crisis at all — and certainly not something that demands drastic government actions to avert serious damage to the environment. In fact, implementing the wrong policy can cause far more damage than it can prevent.

It’s understandable that the public has no idea of the real state of the literature on climate change policy, because even professional economists use utterly misleading rhetoric in this arena. To show what I mean, first, let’s quote from a recent Noah Smith Bloomberg article, which urges left-liberals to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal:

One of the bigger economic issues under debate right now is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multilateral trade deal that would include most countries in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the US. Many people both here and abroad are suspicious of trade deals, while economists usually support them. This time around, however, the dynamic is a little bit different — the TPP is getting some pushback from left-leaning economists such as Paul Krugman.

Krugman’s point is that since US trade is already pretty liberalized … the effect of further liberalization will be small.… I’m usually more of a free-trade skeptic than the average economist.… But in this case, I’m strongly on the pro-TPP side. There are just too many good arguments in favor.

University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong does some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, and estimates that the TPP would increase the world’s wealth by a total of $3 trillion. Though that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the best reforms that’s feasible in the current polarized political situation. (emphasis added)

To summarize the flavor of Smith’s discussion, he thinks the TPP is “one of the bigger economic issues” today, and that its potential windfall to humanity of $3 trillion is “not a big deal in the grand scheme of things” but certainly worth pursuing if attainable. Krugman disagrees with Smith’s assessment, but their differences are clearly quibbles over numbers and strategies; it’s not as if Smith thinks Krugman is a “Ricardo denier” or accuses Krugman of hating poor Asians by opposing the trade deal.

We get a much different tone if instead we look at Smith discussing climate-change policy. For example, in June 2014, Smith wrote a Bloomberg piece on five ways to fight global warming. In the interest of brevity, let me simply quote Smith’s concluding paragraph:

If we do these five things, then the US can still save the world from global warming, even though we’re no longer the main cause of the problem. And the short-run cost to our economy will be very moderate. Saving the world on the cheap sounds like a good idea to me. (emphasis added)

Clearly, there is a chasm in the rhetoric between Smith’s two Bloomberg pieces. When discussing the TPP, it’s an honest disagreement between experts over a trade agreement that Smith thinks is definitely worthwhile, but in the grand scheme is not that big a deal. In contrast, government policies concerning climate change literally involve the fate of the planet.

At this point, most readers would wonder what the problem is. After all, isn’t man-made climate change a global crisis? Why shouldn’t Smith use much stronger rhetoric when describing it?

I am making this comparison because according to one of the pioneers in climate-change economics, William Nordhaus, even if all governments around the world implemented the textbook-perfect carbon tax, the net gain to humanity would be … drumroll please … $3 trillion. In other words, one of the world’s experts on the economics of climate change estimates that the difference to humanity between (a) implementing the perfect carbon-tax policy solution and (b) doing absolutely nothing was about the same difference as DeLong estimated when it comes to the TPP.

To be more specific, the $3 trillion Nordhaus estimate comes from the 2008 calibration of his Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model. (The numbers have gone up since then, but I studied his 2008 calibration in great detail.) Note that this isn’t some “denier” computer simulation, rejected by the serious scientists. On the contrary, Nordhaus’s DICE model was one of only three chosen by the Obama administration when it set up a working group to estimate the monetary damages of carbon dioxide emissions. To help the reader understand the trade-offs humanity faces when it comes to climate change, let me reproduce table 4 from my Independent Review article that critically evaluated Nordhaus’s model:    

The table shows Nordhaus’s estimates (made in 2008 based on the “consensus” scientific assessments of the time) of the net benefits of various possible governmental climate policy approaches. The first row shows what happens if governments do nothing. There will be $22.55 trillion (in present value terms, and quoted in 2005 dollars) of environmental damage, but virtually no economic costs of complying with regulations, for a total harm of $22.59 trillion.

In contrast, if governments around the world implemented Nordhaus’s recommended “optimal” carbon tax, the world would be spared a little more than $5 trillion in future environmental damage, while future economic output would be $2.2 trillion lower due to complying with the carbon tax. Adding it all up, humanity would suffer total harms of $19.52 trillion, meaning the world would be $3.07 trillion wealthier with the optimal, global carbon tax (because $22.59 − $19.52 = $3.07).

Central to the economic way of thinking is the concept of trade-offs. Every possible policy — including a policy of doing nothing — comes with costs. But the public tends to hear about only one set of costs, not the full array. For example, as the earlier table shows, the wrong climate policy can be much, much worse than doing nothing. Nordhaus evaluated Al Gore’s suggestion to cut emissions by 90 percent, and estimated that it would make humanity some $21 trillion poorer compared to the do-nothing baseline — a net harm seven times greater than the net benefits of the textbook-optimal approach.

My point here is not to trumpet Nordhaus’s numbers as being gospel. (My Independent Review article was a full-blown critique of his model.) Rather, I am pointing out that even one of the leading models that underpins the so-called consensus on climate-change activism shows that this is hardly the planetary crisis that the rhetoric of Smith and others would suggest. The actual numbers are in the same ballpark as those of trade deals — and nobody thinks the fate of the planet hangs on the passage of a trade deal.

More generally, what even most economists have failed to convey to the public is that climate-change policies at best will affect things on the margin. Nordhaus’s table beautifully illustrates this. The optimal carbon tax doesn’t eliminate the climate-change damage that his computer simulations predict. On the contrary, the carbon tax only reduces it from about $23 trillion down to $17 billion. The reason it doesn’t make sense to enact a more aggressive carbon tax is that the (marginal) harm to the conventional economy would exceed the (marginal) environmental benefit. There are several policies in the table that reduce environmental damage below the $17 trillion mark, but they hurt the economy so much more that, on net, they are inferior approaches.

It is understandable that noneconomists would fail to employ marginal analysis and would engage in overblown rhetoric when discussing something as controversial as climate-change policy. However, too many professional economists have also fallen into this bad habit, including not just Smith but also Krugman and many others.

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from NYU. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Great Depression and the New Deal.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
August 10, 2014

Today, capitalism is blamed for our current disastrous economic and financial situation and a history of incessant booms and busts. Support for capitalism is eroding worldwide. In a recent global poll, 25 percent (up 2 percent from 2009) of respondents viewed free enterprise as “fatally flawed and needs to be replaced.” The number of Spaniards who hold this view increased from 29 percent in 2009 to 42 percent, the highest amongst those polled. In Indonesia, the percentage went from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Most, if not all, booms and busts originate with excess credit creation from the financial sector. These respondents, incorrectly, assume that this financial system structured on fractural reserve banking is an integral part of capitalism. It isn’t. It is fraud and a violation of property rights, and should be treated as such.

In the past, we had deposit banks and loan banks. If you put your money in a deposit bank, the money was there to pay your rent and food expenses. It was safe. Loan banking was risky. You provided money to a loan bank knowing funds would be tied up for a period of time and that you were taking a risk of never seeing this money again. For this, you received interest to compensate for the risk taken and the value of time preference. Back then, bankers who took a deposit and turned it into a loan took the risk of shortly hanging from the town’s large oak tree.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, the deposit function and loan function were merged into a new entity called a commercial bank. Of course, very quickly these new commercial banks realized they could dip into deposits, essentially committing fraud, as a source of funding for loans. Governments soon realized that such fraudulent activity was a great way to finance government expenditures, and passed laws making this fraud legal. A key interpretation of law in the United Kingdom, Foley v. Hill, set precedence in the financial world for banking laws to follow:

Foley v. Hill and Others, 1848:

Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it. … The money placed in the custody of a banker is, to all intents and purposes, the money of the banker, to do with it as he pleases; he is guilty of no breach of trust in employing it; he is not answerable to the principal if he puts it into jeopardy, if he engages in a hazardous speculation; he is not bound to keep it or deal with it as the property of his principal; but he is, of course, answerable for the amount, because he has contracted, having received that money, to repay to the principal, when demanded, a sum equivalent to that paid into his hands. [1]

In other words, when you put your money in a bank it is no longer your money. The bank can do anything it wants with it. It can go to the casino and play roulette. It is not fraud legally, and the only requirement for the bank is to run a Ponzi scheme, giving you the money deposited by someone else if they lost your money and you happen to come back asking for your money. This legalization of fraud is essentially one of the main reasons no one went to jail after the debacle of 2008.

The primary cause of the financial panics during the nineteenth century was this fraudulent nature of fractional reserve banking. It allowed banks to create excessive credit growth which led to boom and bust cycles. If credit, instead, grew as fast as slow moving savings, booms and bust cycles would be a thing of the past.

Critics of the gold standard, (namely, Krugman, et al.), usually point to these cycles as proof that it failed as a monetary system. They are confusing causation with association. The gold standard did not cause these financial panics. The real cause was fractional reserve banking that was grafted onto the gold standard. The gold standard, on the contrary, actually greatly limited the severity of these crises, by limiting the size of the money multiplier.

This is why in the early days of banking in the US, some wildcat bankers would establish themselves in the most inaccessible locations. This was to ensure that few would actually come and convert claims for gold into actual gold since banks had created claims that far exceeded the actual gold in their vaults. And, if by chance a depositor tried to convert his claims into gold, they would be treated as thieves, as though they were stealing the bank’s property by asking for their gold back.

The Federal Reserve System was created following the panics of 1903 and 1907 to counterbalance the negative impact of fractional reserve banking. One hundred years after its creation, the Fed can only be given a failing grade. Money is no longer a store of value, and the world has experienced two of its worst financial crises. Instead of a counterbalance, the central bank has fed and expanded the size of the beast. This was to be expected.

That global poll on capitalism also found that almost half (48 percent) of respondents felt that the problems of capitalism could be resolved with added regulations and reform. Janet Yellen also holds this view, and that regulation, not interest rates, should be the main tool to avoid another costly boom and bust in global finance. This is extremely naïve. We already have more compliance officers in banks than loan officers. Recent banking legislation, Dodd-Frank, and the Vickers and Liikanen reports will probably make the situation even worse. Banks will always be able to use new technologies and new financial instruments to stay one step ahead of the regulators. We continue to put bandages on a system that is rotten to the core. Banking in its current form is not capitalism. It is fraud and crony capitalism, kept afloat by ever-more desperate government interventions. It should be dismantled. Under a system of 100 percent reserves, loan banks (100 percent equity-financed investment trusts) would be like any other business and would not need any more regulation than that of the makers of potato chips.


[1] Quoted in Murray Rothbard’s, The Mystery of Banking (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2008), p. 92.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Heterogeneity: A Capital Idea! – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Heterogeneity: A Capital Idea! – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
June 26, 2014

When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was released in English earlier this year it sparked vigorous debate on the issue of wealth inequality. Despite the prominence of the word in the title, however, capital has not itself become a hot topic. Apparently none of his defenders have taken the opportunity to explore capital theory, and, with a few exceptions, neither have his critics.

To prepare to read Mr. Piketty’s book I’ve been studying Ludwig Lachmann’s Capital and Its Structure, which, along with Israel M. Kirzner’s Essay on Capital, is among the clearest expositions of Austrian capital theory around. A hundred years ago the “Austrian economists”—i.e. scholars such as Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk who worked in the tradition of Carl Menger—were renowned for their contributions to the theory of capital. Today capital theory is still an essential part of modern Austrian economics, but few others delve into its complexities. Why bother?

Capital is Heterogeneous


Among the Austrians, Böhm-Bawerk viewed capital as “produced means of production” and for Ludwig von Mises “capital goods are intermediary steps on the way toward a definite goal.” (Israel Kirzner uses the metaphor of a “half-baked cake.”)  Lachmann then places capital goods in the context of a person’s plan: “production plans are the primary object of the theory of capital.” You can combine capital goods in only a limited number of ways within a particular plan. Capital goods then aren’t perfect substitutes for one another. Capital is heterogeneous.

Now, mainstream economics treats capital as a homogenous glob. For instance, both micro- and macroeconomists typically assume Output (Q) is a mathematical function of several factor inputs, e.g. Labor (L) and Capital (K) or

Q = f(L,K).

In this function, not only is output homogenous (whether we’re talking about ball-bearings produced by one firm or all the goods produced by all firms in an economy) but so are all labor inputs and all capital inputs used to produce them. In particular, any capital good can substitute perfectly for any other capital good in a firm or across all firms. A hammer can perfectly replace, say, a helicopter or even a harbor.

On the other hand, capital heterogeneity implies several things.

First, according to Mises, heterogeneity means that, “All capital goods have a more or less specific character.” A capital good can’t be used for just any purpose:  A hammer generally can’t be used as a harbor. Second, to make a capital good productive a person needs to combine it with other capital goods in ways that are complementary within her plan: Hammers and harbors could be used together to help repair a boat. And third, heterogeneity means that capital goods have no common unit of measurement, which poses a problem if you want to add up how much capital you have:  One tractor plus two computers plus three nails doesn’t give you “six units” of capital.

Isn’t “money capital” homogeneous? The monetary equivalent of one’s stock of capital, say $50,000, may be useful for accounting purposes, but that sum isn’t itself a combination of capital goods in a production process. If you want to buy $50,000 worth of capital you don’t go to the store and order “Six units of capital please!” Instead, you buy specific units of capital according to your business plan.

At first blush it might seem that labor is also heterogeneous. After all, you can’t substitute a chemical engineer for a pediatrician, can you? But in economics we differentiate between pure “labor” from the specific skills and know-how a person possesses. Take those away—what we call “human capital”—and then indeed one unit of labor could substitute for any other. The same goes for other inputs such as land. What prevents an input from substituting for another, other than distance in time and space, is precisely its capital character.

One more thing. We’re talking about the subjective not the objective properties of a capital good. That is, what makes an object a hammer and not something else is the use to which you put it. That means that physical heterogeneity is not the point, but rather heterogeneity in use. As Lachmann puts it, “Even in a building which consisted of stones completely alike these stones would have different functions.” Some stones serve as wall elements, others as foundation, etc. By the same token, physically dissimilar capital goods might be substitutes for each other. A chair might sometimes also make a good stepladder.

But, again, what practical difference does it make whether we treat capital as heterogeneous or homogenous? Here, briefly, are a few consequences.

Investment Capital and Income Flows


When economists talk about “returns to capital” they often do so as if income “flows” automatically from an investment in capital goods. As Lachmann says:

In most of the theories currently in fashion economic progress is apparently regarded as the automatic outcome of capital investment, “autonomous” or otherwise. Perhaps we should not be surprised at this fact: mechanistic theories are bound to produce results that look automatic.

But if capital goods are heterogeneous, then whether or not you earn an income from them depends crucially on what kinds of capital goods you buy and exactly how you combine them, and in turn how that combination has to complement the combinations that others have put together. You build an office-cleaning business in the hopes that someone else has built an office to clean.

There’s nothing automatic about it; error is always a possibility. Which brings up another implication.




We are living in a world of unexpected change; hence capital combinations, and with them the capital structure, will be ever changing, will be dissolved and re-formed. In this activity we find the real function of the entrepreneur.

We don’t invest blindly. We combine capital goods using, among other things, the prices of inputs and outputs that we note from the past and the prices of those things we expect to see in the future. Again, it’s not automatic. It takes entrepreneurship, including awareness and vision. But in the real world—a world very different from the models of too many economists—unexpected change happens. And when it happens the entrepreneur has to adjust appropriately, otherwise the usefulness of her capital combinations evaporates. But that’s the strength of the market process.

A progressive economy is not an economy in which no capital is ever lost, but an economy which can afford to lose capital because the productive opportunities revealed by the loss are vigorously exploited.

In a dynamic economy, entrepreneurs are able to recombine capital goods to create value faster than it disappears.

Stimulus Spending


As the economist Roger Garrison notes, Keynes’s macroeconomics is based on labor, not capital. And when capital does enter his analysis Keynes regarded it the same way as mainstream economics: as a homogeneous glob.

Thus modern Keynesians, such as Paul Krugman, want to cure recessions by government “stimulus” spending, without much or any regard to what it is spent on, whether hammers or harbors. (Here is just one example.)  But the solution to a recession is not to indiscriminately increase overall spending. The solution is to enable people to use their local knowledge to invest in capital goods that complement existing capital combinations, within what Lachmann calls the capital structure, in a way that will satisfy actual demand. (That is why economist Robert Higgs emphasizes “real net private business investment” as an important indicator of economic activity.)  The government doesn’t know what those combinations are, only local entrepreneurs know, but its spending patterns certainly can and do prevent the right capital structures from emerging.

Finally, no one can usefully analyze the real world without abstracting from it. It’s a necessary tradeoff. For some purposes smoothing the heterogeneity out of capital may be helpful. Too often though the cost is just too high.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
Bernanke’s Legacy: A Weak and Mediocre Economy – Article by John P. Cochran

Bernanke’s Legacy: A Weak and Mediocre Economy – Article by John P. Cochran

The New Renaissance Hat
John P. Cochran
February 8, 2014


As Chairman Bernanke’s reign at the Fed comes to an end, the Wall Street Journal provides its assessment of “The Bernanke Legacy.” Overall the Journal does a reasonable job on both Greenspan and Bernanke, especially compared to the “effusive praise from the usual suspects; supporters of monetary central planning. The Journal argues when accessing Bernanke’s performance it is appropriate to review Bernanke’s performance “before, during, and after the financial panic.”

While most assessments of Bernanke’s performance as a central banker focus on the “during” and “after” financial-crisis phases with much of the praise based on the “during” phase, the Journal joins the Austrians and John Taylor in unfavorable assessment of the more critical “before” period. It was this period when the Fed generated its second boom-bust cycle in the Greenspan-Bernanke era. In the Journal’s assessment, Bernanke, Greenspan, and the Fed deserve an “F.” While this pre-crisis period mostly fell under the leadership of Alan Greenspan, the Journal highlights that Bernanke was the “leading intellectual force” behind the pre-crisis policies. As a result of these too-loose, too-long policies, just as the leadership of the Fed passed from Greenspan to Bernanke, the credit boom the Fed “did so much to create turned to mania, which turned to panic, which became a deep recession.” The Journal’s description of Bernanke’s role should be highlighted in any serious analysis of the Bernanke era:

His [Bernanke’s] role goes back to 2002 when as a Fed Governor he gave a famous speech warning about deflation that didn’t exist [and if it did exist should not have been feared].[1] He and Mr. Greenspan nonetheless followed the advice of Paul Krugman to promote a housing bubble to offset the dot-com crash.

As Fed transcripts show, Mr. Bernanke was the board’s intellectual leader in its decision to cut the fed-funds rate to 1% in June 2003 and keep it there for a year. This was despite a rapidly accelerating economy (3.8% growth in 2004) and soaring commodity and real-estate prices. The Fed’s multiyear policy of negative real interest rates produced a credit mania that led to the housing bubble and bust.

For some of the best analysis of the Fed’s pre-crisis culpability one should turn to Roger Garrison’s excellent analysis. In a 2009 Cato Journal paper, Garrison (2009, p. 187) characterizes Fed policy during the “Great Moderation” as a “learning by doing policy” which, based on events post-2003, would be better classified as “so far so good” or “whistling in the dark.” The actual result of this “learning by doing policy” is described by Garrison in “Natural Rates of Interest and Sustainable Growth”:

In the earlier episode [ boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to counter the upward pressure of interest rates, causing actual interest rates not to deviate greatly from the historical norm. In the later episode [housing bubble/boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to reinforce the downward pressure on interest rates, causing the actual interest rates to be exceedingly low relative to the historical norm. Although the judgment, made retrospectively by economists of virtually all stripes, that the Fed funds target rate was “too low for too long” between mid-2003 and mid-2004, it was almost surely too low for too long relative to the natural rate in both episodes. (p. 433)

Given this and other strong evidence of the Fed’s role in creating the credit-driven boom, the Journal faults “Mr. Bernanke’s refusal to acknowledge that the Fed made any mistake in the mania years.”

On the response to the crisis, the Journal refrains from the accolades of many who credit the Fed led by the leading scholar of the Great Depression from acting strongly to prevent another such calamity. According to the Fed worshipers, things might not be good, but without the unprecedented actions and bailouts things would have been catastrophic. The Journal’s more measured assessment:

Once the crisis hit, Mr. Bernanke and the Fed deserve the benefit of the doubt. From the safe distance of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how rapid and widespread the financial panic was. The Fed had to offset the collapse in the velocity of money with an increase in its supply, and it did so with force and dispatch. One can disagree with the Fed’s special guarantee programs, but we weren’t sitting in the financial polar vortex at the time. It’s hard to see how others would have done much better.

But discerning readers of Vern McKinley’s Financing Failure: A Century of Bailouts might disagree. Fed actions, even when not verging on the illegal, were counter-productive, unnecessary, and contributed to action-freezing policy uncertainty which contributed to the collapse of the velocity of money. McKinley describes much of what was done as “seat-of-the-pants decision-making” (pp. 305-306):

“Seat of the pants” is not a flattering description of the methods of the regulators, but its use is justified to describe the panic-driven actions during the 2000s crisis. It is only natural that under the deadline of time pressure judgment will be flawed, mistakes will be made and taxpayer exposure will be magnified, and that has clearly been the case. With the possible exception of the Lehman Brothers decision … all of the major bailout decisions during the 2000s crisis were made under duress of panic over a very short period of time with very limited information at hand and with input of a limited number of objective parties involved in the decision making. Not surprisingly, these seat-of-the-pants responses did not instill confidence, and there was no clear evidence collected that the expected negative fallout would truly have occurred.

While a defense of some Fed action could be found in Hayek’s 1970s discussion of “best” policy under bad institutions (a central bank) where he argued that during a crisis a central bank should act to prevent a secondary deflation, the Fed actions went clearly beyond such a recommendation. Better would have been an immediate policy to end the credit expansion in its tracks. The Fed’s special guarantee programs and movement toward a mondustrial policy should be a great worry to anyone concerned about long-term prosperity and liberty. Whether any human running a central bank could have done better is an open question, but other monetary arrangements could clearly have led to better outcomes.

The Journal’s analysis of post-crisis policy, while not as harsh as it should be,[2] is critical. Despite an unprecedented expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, the “recovery is historically weak.” At some point “a Fed chairman has to take some responsibility for the mediocre growth — and lack of real income growth — on his watch.” Bernanke’s policy is also rightly criticized because “The other great cost of these post-crisis policies is the intrusion of the Fed into politics and fiscal policy.”

Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. Given, as the Journal points out, “Politicians — and even some conservative pundits — have adopted the Bernanke standard that the Fed’s duty is to reduce unemployment and manage the business cycle,” the prospect that this legacy will be viewed favorably is less and less likely. Perhaps if the editors joined Paul Krugman in reading and fully digesting Joe Salerno’s “A Reformulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in Light of the Financial Crisis,” they would correctly fail Bernanke and Fed policy before, during, and after the crisis.

But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly,[3] for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.


[1] See Joseph T. Salerno, “An Austrian Taxonomy of Deflation — With Applications to the U.S.” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6, no. 4 (2001).

[2] See John P. Cochran’s, Bernanke: The Good Engineer? Mises Daily Article, 21 March 2013 and Bernanke: A Tenure of Failure, Mises Daily Article, 31, July 2013.

[3] See John P. Cochran, Recessions: The Don’t Do List, Mises Daily Article, 17 February 2013.

John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Bitcoin for Beginners – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Bitcoin for Beginners – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The New Renaissance Hat
Jeffrey A. Tucker
April 2, 2013

Understanding Bitcoin requires that we understand the limits of our ability to imagine the future that the market can create for us.

Thirty years ago, for example, if someone had said that electronic text—digits flying through the air and landing in personalized inboxes owned by us all that we check at will at any time of the day or night—would eventually displace first class mail, you might have said it was impossible.

After all, not even the Jetsons cartoon imagined email. Elroy brought notes home from his teacher on pieces of paper. Still, email has largely displaced first-class mail, just as texting, social networking, private messaging, and even digital vmail via voice-over-Internet are replacing the traditional telephone.

It turns out that the future is really hard to imagine, especially when entrepreneurs specialize in surprising us with innovations. The markets are always outsmarting even the most wild-eyed dreamers, and they are certainly smarter than the intellectual who keeps saying: such and such cannot happen.

It’s the same today. What if I suggested that digital money could eventually come to replace government paper money? Heaven knows we need a replacement.

Solving Problems a Byte at a Time

Money started in modern times as gold and silver, and it was controlled by its owners and users. Then the politicians got hold of it—a controlling interest in half of every transaction—and look what they did. Today money is rooted in nothing at all and its value is subject to the whims of central planners, politicians, and monetary bureaucrats. This system is not very modern when we consider a world in which the market is driving innovations in other aspects of our daily lives.

Maybe it was just a matter of time. The practicality is impossible to deny: Gamers needed tokens they could trade. Digital real estate needed to be bought and sold. Money was also becoming more and more notional, with wire transfers, bank computer systems, and card networks serving to move “money” around. The whole world was gradually migrating to the digital sphere, but conventional money was attached to the ground, to vaults owned or controlled by governments.

The geeks went to work on it in the 1990s and developed a number of prototypes—Ecash, bit gold, RPOW, b-money—but they all faltered for the same reason: their supply could not be limited and no one could figure out how to make them impossible to double and triple spend. Normally, reproducibility is a wonderful thing. You can send me an image and still keep it. You can send me a song and not lose control of yours. The Internet made possible infinite copying, which is a great thing for media and texts and—with 3-D printing—even objects. But reproducibility is not a feature that benefits a medium of exchange.

After all, a currency is useless unless it is scarce and its replication is carefully controlled. Think of the gold standard. There is a fixed amount of gold in the world, and it enters into economic life only through hard work and real expenditure. Gold has to be mined. All gold is interchangeable with all other gold, but when I own an ounce, you can’t own it at the same time. How can such a system be replicated in the digital sphere? How can you assign titles to a fungible digital good and makes sure that these titles are absolutely sticky to the property in question?

Follow the Money

Finally it happened. In 2008, a person called “Satoshi Nakamoto” created Bitcoin. He wasn’t the first to solve the problem of double spending. A currency called e-gold did that, but the flaw was that there was a central entity in charge that users had to trust. Bitcoin removed this central point of failure, enabling miners themselves constantly to validate the transaction record. He had each user download the full ledger of all existing Bitcoins so that each could be checked for its title and not used more than once at the same time. With his system, every coin had an owner, and the system could not be gamed.

Further, Nakamoto built in a system of mining that attempts to replicate the experience of the gold standard. The math equations you have to solve get harder over time. The early creators had it easy, just like the early miners of gold could pan it out of the river, though later they had to dig into the mountain. Nakamoto put a limit on the number of coins that can be mined (21 million by 2140). (A new coin is currently mined every 20 seconds or so, and a transaction occurs every second.)

He made his code completely open-source and available to all so that it could be trusted. And the payment system used the most advanced form of encryption, with public keys visible to all and a scrambling system that makes its connection to the private key impossible to discover.

No one would be in charge of the system; everyone would be in charge of the system. This is what it means to be open source, and it’s the same dynamic that has made WordPress a powerhouse in the software community. There would be no need for an Audit Bitcoin movement. Trust, anonymity, speed, strict property rights, and the possibility that applications could be built on top of the infrastructure made it perfect.

Bitcoin went live on November 1, 2008. To really appreciate why this matters, consider the times. The entire political and financial establishment was in full-scale panic meltdown. The real estate markets had collapsed, pulling down the balance sheets of the major banks. The investment banks were unloading mortgage-backed securities at an unprecedented pace. Boats delivering goods couldn’t leave shore because they could find no backers for their insurance bonds. For a moment, it seemed like the world was ending. The Republicans held the White House, but the unthinkable still happened: Government and the central banks decided to attempt a full-scale rescue of the whole system, spending and creating trillions in new paper tickets to fill bank vaults.

Clearly government paper was failing. A digital alternative had to exist. But what gave Bitcoin its value? There were several factors. It was not fixed to any existing currency, so it could float according to human valuation. It was made from real stuff: the very 1s and 0s that were driving forward the global market economy. And while 1s and 0s can be reproduced unto infinity, the new coins could not, thanks to a system in which the coin and its public key were strictly controlled and the ledger updated for every transaction. Its soundness could be checked constantly through instantaneous conversion to other currencies as well as to goods and services. The model seemed impenetrable, the first digital currency that really addressed all the problems that had doomed previous attempts.

A Bitcoin of One’s Own

Let’s fast forward in time to March 2013. I had become the proud owner of my first Bitcoin. My wallet lived on my smartphone. Only three years ago, some wonderful applications had already developed around the currency unit. Although I’m a bit techy, I’m not a rocket scientist and I’m quite certain that I would have been out of my league. But this is how digital institutions develop to become ever more user friendly. At the same event at which I became a Bitcoin owner, I also used a Bitcoin ATM. I put in the green stuff, held my digital wallet up to the scanner, and then I felt the buzz on my smartphone. Physical became digital. Beautiful.

But still I wondered what exactly I could do with these things. That’s when the consumer world of Bitcoin products appeared before me. We aren’t just talking about the Silk Road—a website that became notorious for enabling the easy, anonymous buying and selling of drugs. There are Bitcoin stores everywhere. And there are services in which you can buy from any website with a Bitcoin interface. There was growing talk of Bitcoin futures markets. Some companies were rumored to be going public with Bitcoins, and thereby bypassing the whole of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The implications are mind-blowing.

Sacred Pliers

Still, I’m a tactile kind of guy. I need to experience things. So I went to one of these sites. I brought the first product I saw (why, I do not know). It was a pair of pliers for crimping electric cables. I put in my shipping address and up came a note that said it was time to pay. This was the moment I had been waiting for. A QR code—that funny square design that looks like a 3-D bar code—popped up onscreen. I held up my “wallet” and scanned. In less than 2 seconds, the deed was done. It was easier than Amazon’s one-click ordering system. My heart raced. I jumped out of my chair and did a quick song and dance around the room. Somehow I had seen it thoroughly for the first time: this is the future.

The pliers arrived two days later, and even though I have no use for them, I still treasure them.

Bitcoin had already taken off when the surprising Cyprus crisis hit in a big way. The government was talking about seizing bank deposits as a way of bailing out the whole system. During this period, Bitcoin essentially doubled in value. Press reports said that people were pulling out government currency and converting it, not only in Cyprus but also in Spain and Italy and elsewhere. The price of Bitcoin in terms of dollars soared. Another way to put this is that the price of goods and services in terms of Bitcoin was going down. Yes, this is the much-dreaded system that mainstream economists decry as “deflation.” The famed Keynesian Paul Krugman has even gone so far as to say that the worst thing about Bitcoin is that people hoard them instead of spending them, thereby replicating the feature of the gold standard that he hates the most! He might as well have given a ringing endorsement, as far as I’m concerned.

Obsession and Resentment

My own experience with Bitcoin during this time intensified. I began to call friends on Skype and scan their QR codes and trade currencies. I began to rope other people into the obsession based on my experience: you have to own to believe. After one full day of buying, selling, and using Bitcoins, I had the strange experience of resenting that I had to pay a cab fare in plain old U.S. dollars.

How do you obtain Bitcoins? This process can be a bit tricky. You can look up and find a local person to meet you to trade cash for Bitcoins. Usually, this exchange takes place at high premiums of anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent depending on how competitive the local market is. It is understandable why people are reluctant to do this, no matter how safe it is. There is just something that seems sketchy about meeting a stranger in an all-night cafe to do some unusual digital currency exchange.

A more conventional route is to go to one of many online sellers and link up your bank account and buy. This process can take a few days. And then when you set out to transfer the funds, you might be surprised at the limits in the market that exist these days. Sites are rationing Bitcoin selling based on availability, just given the high demand. It could be 10 days or more to go from non-owner to real owner. But once you have them, you are off to the races. Sending and receiving money has never been easier.


As of this writing, a Bitcoin is trading for $88.249.  Just three years ago, it hovered at 0.14 cents. Many people look at the current market and think, surely this is a speculative bubble. That could be true, but it might not be. People are exchanging an unstable, fiat paper for something with a real title that cannot be duplicated. Everyone knows precisely how many Bitcoins exist at any time. Anyone can observe the transactions taking place in real time. A Bitcoin’s price can go up and down, and that’s fine, but there is no real speculation going on here that is endogenous to the Bitcoin market itself.

Is it a pyramid scheme? The defining mark of a pyramid scheme is that more than one person has an equal claim on the same money or good. This is physically impossible with Bitcoin. The way the program is set up, it is a strict property rights regime with no exceptions. In fact, in early March, there was a brief hiccup in the system when some new coins were approved by one group of developers but not approved by another. A “fork” appeared in the system. The price began to fall. Developers worked fast to resolve the dispute and eventually the system—and the price—returned to normal. This is the advantage of the open-source system.

But what about the vague sense some people have that a handful of coders cannot, on their own, cause a new currency to come in existence? Well, if you look back at what Austrian monetary theorist Carl Menger says, he points out that a similar process is precisely how gold became money. Every new currency is not at first used by everyone. It is at first used only “by the most discerning and most capable economizing individuals.” Their successful behaviors are then emulated by others. In other words, the emergence of money involves entrepreneurship—that is, being alert to opportunities to discover and provide something new.

Leviathan Leers

But what about a government crackdown? No doubt that attempt will be made. Already, some national government agencies are expressing some degree of annoyance at what could be. But governments haven’t been able to control the cash economy. It would be infinitely more difficult to control a virtual currency with no central bank, with encryption, and with millions of users per day. Controlling that would be unthinkable.

There was a time when the idea that ebooks would replace physical books was an absurd notion. When I first took a look at the early generation of ereaders, I laughed and scoffed. It will never happen. Now I find myself looking for a home for my physical books and loading up on ebooks by the hundreds. Such is the way markets surprise us. Technology without central planners makes dreams come true.

It’s possible that Bitcoin will flop. Maybe it is just the first generation. Maybe thousands of people will lose their shirts in this first go-round. But is the digitization of money coming? Absolutely. Will there always be skeptics out there? Absolutely. But in this case, they are not in charge. Markets will do what they do, building the future whether we approve or understand it fully or not. The future will not be stopped.

Jeffrey Tucker is executive editor and publisher at Laissez Faire Books

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Not Enough Inflation? – Article by Tyler Watts

Not Enough Inflation? – Article by Tyler Watts

The New Renaissance Hat
Tyler Watts
July 15, 2012

Two wrongs may not make a right, but a second dose of poison might just cure the first dose. That’s at least what Paul Krugman, America’s most prominent left-wing economic pundit, is saying about an untapped remedy for our economic woes. In his April 5 New York Times column, “Not Enough Inflation,” Krugman repeated his claim that “a bit more inflation would be a good thing, not a bad thing.”

If you’re wondering how progressively higher prices for everyday goods could help any household get ahead economically, let alone contribute to overall economic recovery, you’re in good company. As all econ-principles students know, inflation is caused by an increase in the supply of money relative to money demand. The increase in consumer goods prices—that’s how the layman defines and experiences inflation—is really just a symptom of the reduced purchasing power of money caused by the increase in its quantity. The higher prices for all goods in turn mean lower real incomes for consumers—which is all of us—not to mention that inflation is also typically symptomatic of the boom-bust business cycle and can cause significant widespread economic damage. In its most severe forms, inflation can wipe out people’s monetary wealth and bring commerce to a halt.

But smart guys like Professor Krugman aren’t mere monetary cranks. They know that high inflation is economically dangerous. What they’re asking for is just a small, temporary dose of fresh money to inject some new life into the economy. There is a kernel of truth to this inflationary prescription. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume explained in his 1752 essay Of Money, prices for different kinds of goods react differently to new money entering the economy. Generally speaking, commodities or consumer goods prices will rise faster than wages. So for a manufacturing entrepreneur, for instance, who employs many workers, inflation will cause output prices (revenue) to increase relative to wages (costs), bringing an increase in profits that will induce an increase in output. Therefore, in Hume’s terms, an increase of money “must first quicken the diligence of every [entrepreneur], before it increase the price of labor.”

This “sticky wages” effect is what economists like Hume, John Maynard Keynes, and Krugman have in mind when advocating inflationary stimulus. Krugman also notes that “parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years,” and that “modest inflation . . . by eroding the real value of that debt . . . [would] help promote the private-sector recovery.” So higher inflation not only increases the demand for labor, but can also help clean up companies’ and individuals’ balance sheets, giving them the ability to ramp up their hiring and spending. What’s not to love about this miracle elixir?

There are two big problems with inflationary stimulus. The first involves the process dynamics of the market economy. The inflationists tend to omit the rest of the story, which involves the long-run effects of new money. New money will eventually increase all prices—even wages—meaning the stimulus effect can only be temporary. For if entrepreneurs read the price increases not as mere inflation, but higher demand for their products (as the inflationists hope), they are liable to make investments to expand their production capacity. Once the inflation effect peters out, once rising wages eventually push profits back down, they find that extra production is no longer profitable. The expansion can’t be sustained without more inflationary stimulus.

In a rising inflation environment, moreover, people will eventually come to anticipate further price increases. Workers demand upward wage adjustments in advance, and entrepreneurs anticipate rising costs and thus scale back their expansion plans. Once people catch on to inflationary stimulus in this fashion, larger and larger money injections (that is, higher inflation rates) are needed to merely maintain output levels. At some point, the high, rising, and volatile inflation rate itself becomes a drag on the economy. Miscalculation of next year’s, or even next month’s, inflation rate could spell disaster for entrepreneur and worker alike. As inflation heats up, it can actually drag investment down, as people seek to shelter their wealth in “sterile” assets like gold. Inflation, instead of a stimulus factor, becomes a source of economic confusion and frustration. Iconic images of people hauling wheelbarrow loads of money to buy a loaf of bread in post-World War I Germany remind us of the potential economic turmoil of unchecked inflation. This of course is not what Krugman has in mind, but we should not forget that the mightiest river begins as a trickle.

The second big problem with inflation is a moral one. Along with causing economic confusion, inflation redistributes wealth. The key fact here, again, is that not all prices rise immediately when new money enters circulation. People who are first to receive the new money get to spend it before prices go up. Those last in line see prices go up before their own incomes do. Inflation also redistributes wealth from lenders to borrowers, as Krugman indicated, by reducing the real value of debt. But Krugman conveniently ignores the corresponding fact that, whenever a borrower’s real debt burden is eased, a lender’s asset value is eroded. Thus to use inflation as a partial bailout for borrowers is to harm lenders and investors. This is happening already—even at “mild” inflation rates that are too low for Krugman’s tastes, real returns on investments like bank CDs are driven into negative territory.

Through these redistributions of purchasing power, inflation acts like a tax: a tax on savers, on investors, on those at the very end of the monetary policy food chain. Ironically for Progressives like Krugman, this inflation tax arguably hits the poor and uneducated hardest. Educated, economically sophisticated people know the warning signs of inflation and know how to shelter their assets—as attested by the flurry of gold bullion dealers’ ads on cable news and AM radio. The poor are much more likely to be wage earners whose incomes tend to lag inflation, or pensioners who, even with annual cost-of-living adjustments, can still see consistent reductions in their purchasing power.

Nonetheless, Krugman and the inflation party don’t understand the free-market camp’s arguments against inflation. He accuses us of “obsessing” over inflation, while he thinks the Fed should focus on curing unemployment. Even conceding that inflation can provide a temporary, halting employment stimulus, the objection remains strong. It comes down to the fact that inflation is a big lie—or, should we say, a million little lies, because inflation distorts all prices and thereby hinders their crucial function of giving entrepreneurs and workers the correct information and incentives on which to make the best economic decisions. Inflation’s promises of faster growth and greater wealth are illusory. Like alcohol or drug abuse, every high begets a crash that demands larger and larger doses to maintain the effect. Inflation is a dangerous medicine that stands to do the patient more harm than good.

Tyler Watts is an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University and the winner of the 2012 Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.